Michigan Technological University in Houghton Hosts World’s First Freshwater Site for Testing Autonomous Watercraft


The Smart Ships Coalition of the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence has unveiled its Marine Autonomy Research Site, the world’s first freshwater location for testing unmanned surface and underwater vessels. The site is located in Houghton, and will be managed by Michigan Technological University.

The site was unveiled at Michigan Technological University’s Great Lakes Research Center, and the Smart Ships Coalition was launched in conjunction with the unveiling of the site.

The coalition is a stakeholder community of academic, state, and federal agencies, private businesses, nonprofit groups, and international organizations that share a common interest in the advancement and application of autonomous technologies operated in marine environments. It was established by resolution of the governors and premiers of the Great Lakes St. Lawrence in October 2017.

The dedication drew representatives from Michigan Governor Rick Snyder’s office, the Conference of Great Lakes and St. Lawrence Governors and Premiers, Great Lakes shipping companies, legislators, the U.S. Coast Guard and Transport Canada, and local dignitaries.

The Michigan Office of the Great lakes, which is within the Michigan Department of Natural Resources, assisted with developing the site.

“This innovative technology will help researchers develop integrated systems to collect data and inform Great Lakes management decisions,” says Jon Allan, director of the office.

Unmanned surface and subsurface vehicles were on display at the launch ceremony. A small surface vessel captured the contours of the bottom of the canal, and an autonomous buoy maintained its position by moving itself when necessary.

Michigan Tech plays an integral role in Great Lakes research on lake ecology, fish biology, and ecosystem change. The testing area extends within a 30-mile radius of the university’s waterfront campus.

The area is already served by the university’s real-time GPS survey system, its fleet of crewed research vessels, and a licensed mariner, along with all U.S. Coast Guard testing requirements for monitoring and verifying vehicle location and performance.

The Coast Guard’s Duluth, Minn.-based Marine Safety Unit is working with Michigan Tech site researchers to develop interim guidelines and protocols for unmanned vehicle deployment and testing. Autonomous vessels to initially be tested at the site will be research- and survey-grade boats and underwater drones less than 33 feet in length overall.

The waters near the Keweenaw Peninsula, which include seasonally Arctic-like conditions, are an ideal testing ground. They also allow the technology to be tested where it will not interfere with commercial shipping or recreational boating.

“This center put us on the cutting edge,” says U.S. Rep. Jack Bergman, R-Mich. “And if you’re not on the cutting edge, you’re behind.”

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